The Times of Israel liveblogged Wednesday’s events as they unfolded.
Reports aired on Channels 12 and 13 indicate that a plea deal in the ongoing corruption trial of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is looking less likely, as the sides continue to dig in their heels.
According to Channel 13, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is attuned to the heavy criticism among both the public and within the legal system over such a deal, and is refusing to consider any deal that would not include a charge of “moral turpitude” — which would bar Netanyahu from politics for seven years.
The Kan public broadcaster, meanwhile, says that while negotiations did not move forward today, Netanyahu is still interested in a plea bargain and willing to discuss the potential of a moral turpitude conviction.
Jerusalem Police say that a Molotov cocktail was reported to have been thrown at a bus driving through East Jerusalem.
Police say the bus driver was lightly wounded, and received medical attention.
Officers arrived at the scene and began to search for the perpetrators, as police opened an investigation into the incident.
Police used invasive tech tools by a second Israeli company, not just NSO Group, to target protesters and activists, according to a report on Channel 12 news.
After a bombshell report this morning claiming that police used the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware against Israeli civilians, including anti-Netanyahu protesters and other activists, Channel 12 claims that the police also used tech tools from the Israeli company Cellebrite.
At least one protester active in the movement to oust former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu found Cellebrite software on their phone, the report alleges.
Police officials have maintained that most of the report’s claims are false. Police chief Kobi Shabtai did not deny that it used such spyware, but said that any such usage was always approved by the appropriate legal authorities, and he categorically denied it being deployed against anti-Netanyahu protesters, known as “Black Flag” protesters.
State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman has vowed to investigate the claims, as multiple lawmakers have pressed for an inquiry.
Cellebrite has also been the target of global criticism for its alleged use against activists and protesters in other countries.
This entry was edited to correct the description of Israeli company Cellebrite, which does not have spyware. The company develops forensic digital tools.
After close to three days without updating its COVID data dashboard, the Health Ministry reveals that more than 125,000 people in Israel have been confirmed to have COVID in the past two days.
According to partial statistics, 65,259 people tested positive yesterday, and 62,210 people tested positive on Sunday. Those figures broke a new daily record, which was set only last week with more than 47,000 daily infections.
Earlier today, the ministry said that 498 people with COVID were hospitalized in serious condition, with 100 of those on ventilators.
The ministry has said that the spike in infections and testing has caused delays and problems in reporting the full figures.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz resubmits the IDF conscription bill that failed in a first vote yesterday.
The bill is expected to come up for a vote again next week. The vote yesterday failed 54-54, after Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi voted against, breaking coalition discipline. According to reports, Zoabi is expected to vote in favor this time around.
The legislation is aimed at lowering the age at which members of the ultra-Orthodox community can be exempted from military service. The High Court has demanded that the government advance efforts to legislate clear rules on the IDF recruitment of Haredi yeshiva students.
The White House says Russia is poised for a potential attack on Ukraine that could come at “any point” and warned that the US response would include all options.
“No option is off the table,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki tells reporters, warning of an “extremely dangerous situation.”
“We’re now at a stage where Russia could at any point launch an attack on Ukraine,” Psaki says.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday in Geneva in hopes of securing a “diplomatic off-ramp” to the Ukraine crisis, a US official says.
Blinken is currently on his way to Ukraine for a trip aimed at expressing support for Kyiv.
Israel has extended the detention of a Palestinian teenager with a rare neuromuscular disorder who has been held without charge for a year in what authorities refer to as administrative detention, his father says.
Amal Nakhleh, who was detained in January 2021 and turned 18 this week, is one of just a handful of minors being held in administrative detention. He had a tumor removed from his lung in 2020 and suffers from myasthenia gravis, a nerve disorder that causes severe muscle fatigue.
His father, Muamar, confirms that his detention has been extended until mid-May. He says that Israel has yet to charge his son or provide any justification for detaining him.
“We are very worried about his health,” he says.
The IDF has said that the teenager was detained for “being involved with weapons and terrorist activity” without providing details.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says that President Isaac Herzog may be visiting his country soon.
Speaking to reporters, Erdogan says that his office is “having talks with President Herzog. He may be visiting Turkey soon,” according to comments reported by the Anadolu news agency.
A spokesman for Herzog declined to respond to Erdogan’s comments.
Erdogan called Herzog last week to bid him condolences on the death of his mother, after he also sent a letter to the president. Erdogan “called to offer his personal sympathies,” said the president’s office. Erdogan told Herzog that his late mother, Aura Herzog, would be proud “of your service to the citizens of Israel.”
Erdogan also spoke with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in November following the release of an Israeli couple arrested and held for more than a week in Istanbul.
It was the first call between Erdogan and an Israeli leader since 2013, as Ankara has indicated it is seeking a rapprochement with Jerusalem.
Poland’s chief auditor says he plans to initiate an audit into the state’s supervision of the secret services following revelations of illegal surveillance of government critics with powerful spyware.
Marian Banas, president of the Supreme Audit Office, an independent institution charged with ensuring public funds are spent properly, speaks before a Senate committee investigating the use of Pegasus, spyware produced by Israel’s NSO Group.
“Taking into account the recent events related to the security of the state and citizens, I made a decision to initiate immediate urgent monitoring of state supervision over secret services,” Banas says.
He said he plans to call Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of Poland’s ruling right-wing party and the deputy prime minister for security, as a witness to testify under penalty of perjury.
“He should answer questions about the illegal and mass surveillance of Polish women and men,” Banas says. He said if Kaczynski is summoned, the law would require him to appear.
Kaczynski, the country’s most powerful politician, acknowledged last week that Poland had purchased Pegasus, describing it as an important tool to fight serious crime.
United Torah Judaism leader MK Moshe Gafni says that if former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu signs a plea deal, the current government will fall by springtime.
Reports have been swirling over the past week that Netanyahu is close to signing a plea deal in his ongoing corruption trial, which is likely to include a clause barring him from politics for at least several years, or up to seven years.
Gafni tells Army Radio that if Netanyahu no longer heads Likud, the current governing coalition will fall apart.
“If Netanyahu signs a plea deal, there won’t be any glue holding the coalition together,” Gafni says, “and we’ll arrive at Passover with a new government.”
Passover this year falls in mid-April; the shortest election period possible is 90 days.
Gafni says his ultra-Orthodox party “will continue to stick with the right-wing bloc and the religious and traditional parties,” and will wait to see who may lead Likud in the future before making any decisions.
The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, the World Health Organization chief says, cautioning against the narrative that the fast-spreading Omicron variant is mild.
“This pandemic is nowhere near over, and with the incredible growth of Omicron globally, new variants are likely to emerge,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tells reporters.
An investigating judge in Beirut freezes some assets belonging to the country’s central bank governor, who is accused of corruption and dereliction of duties during Lebanon’s unprecedented economic meltdown.
Judge Ghada Aoun says she ordered the freeze “as a precautionary measure” while an investigation into allegations against Gov. Riad Salameh continues. The governor failed to show up for questioning earlier today in a lawsuit filed by a Lebanese anti-corruption group.
Last week, Aoun issued a travel ban for Salameh in the same case. The long-serving central bank governor is also being investigated in a handful of European countries on suspicion of money laundering.
The deeply divided Lebanon is going through its worst economic meltdown, with the value of the national currency plunging, foreign reserves running low and the highly indebted government unable to agree on an economic recovery plan.
Many hold Salameh responsible for the financial crisis, blaming him for policies that only drove national debt up and caused the currency to tumble. But Salameh, 71, has been in the post for nearly three decades and enjoys backing from most politicians, including the country’s prime minister.
State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman says he will open an investigation into claims that the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware was used against Israeli citizens, including protesters and activists.
An explosive report from the Calcalist business news outlet this morning said police have for years been making widespread use of the spyware against Israeli civilians, including people not suspected of crimes, exploiting a legal loophole and keeping the surveillance under tight secrecy without oversight by a court or a judge.
The use of such technological tracking “raises questions of balance between their usefulness and the violation of the right to privacy and other freedoms,” says Englman.
Israel Police chief Kobi Shabtai did not deny that police used the spyware against Israeli citizens, but said some of the allegations were incorrect, and stressed that everything was done with the appropriate warrants and oversight.
Shabtai denied claims the technology was used against anti-Netanyahu protesters, local authorities and people opposed to pride parades.
The trial of Iranian-Swedish dissident Habib Chaab begins in Tehran, state television shows, with charges including terrorism and “spreading corruption on earth” punishable by the death sentence.
Chaab, in his late forties, has been held in Iran since late 2020 after he disappeared during a visit to Turkey. A month later he appeared on Iran’s state television, claiming responsibility for launching a deadly 2018 attack on a military parade and working with Saudi intelligence services.
“He is accused of spreading corruption on earth through the formation, management and leadership of a group called the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz and planning and carrying out terrorist operations and destroying public property,” the prosecutor’s representative says.
State television showed recorded footage of the session that ran for almost an hour, a rare occurrence in Iranian courts.
The US Treasury Department issues sanctions against three individuals and a company it says help finance Hezbollah activities.
The sanctions imposed by the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control target Adel Diab, Ali Mohamad Daoun, Jihad Salem Alame, and their company, Dar Al Salam for Travel & Tourism.
Hezbollah’s “widespread network of financial facilitators has helped the group exploit Lebanon’s financial resources and survive the current economic crisis,” the Treasury says.
The group, designated as a terror entity by the United States since 2001, uses businessmen to “gain access to material and financial support through the legitimate commercial sector,” says the Treasury, “to fund its acts of terrorism and attempts to destabilize Lebanon’s political institutions.”
Likud MK and former minister Miri Regev says that former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu should not accept a plea bargain in his ongoing corruption trial.
“I believe in his innocence, like many in Israeli society, and I’m sure that, at the end of the day, if the trial continues, the person who will stand trial will not be Netanyahu, but the attorney general and the prosecutors,” Regev tells Ynet.
Regev says she has not spoken with Netanyahu about the plea deal, which is reportedly being debated in intense negotiations between the state and the current opposition leader.
“On a personal level, I would like to see him keep going [with the trial],” Regev says, noting that the former prime minister should make the best decision for him and his family.
A letter signed by approximately 180 mayors and leaders of local councils across Israel calls on the government to end mandatory quarantine for unvaccinated schoolchildren who are exposed to a COVID-infected individual but test negative.
“Children are not in a high-risk group,” the letter reads. “Don’t leave the education system behind.”
Only approximately 24% of 5- to 11-year-olds have received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine, and just 12% have received two doses.
The Defense Ministry releases images and video of its successful test overnight of the Arrow 3 anti-ballistic missile system.
The trial tested a number of “breakthrough” capabilities for the missile defense system, which can be used immediately by the Israeli Air Force, the Defense Ministry’s Missile Defense Organization head Moshe Patel told reporters earlier today.
The live-fire test was held over central Israel in the early hours of this morning, with two Arrow 3 interceptors being fired at the same target.
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) January 18, 2022
The National Planning and Building Council approves regulations requiring the installation of infrastructure for electric car recharging in all new buildings with at least six apartments.
It also agrees to no longer require a building permit for the placing of solar panels on water bodies such as reservoirs.
The final decision rests with the energy minister.
Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman calls for an end to the widespread usage of the “Green Pass” proof of COVID vaccination to enter certain locations.
“There is no medical or epidemiological logic in the Green Pass, many experts agree,” says Liberman. “There is, however, direct harm to the economy, to daily operations and a not insignificant contribution to daily panic among the public.”
Liberman says he is working with “all the authorities” in order to get rid of the Green Pass and “maintain a normal life routine for all of us.”
Currently, admittance to many public and private facilities requires a Green Pass vaccination card, which is only valid following a booster shot or within six months of a second vaccine dose.
Initial data shows that the current widespread Omicron variant is able to bypass the vaccine in many cases.
The Vatican’s top diplomat and adviser to Pope Francis, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, has tested positive for COVID, says a spokesman for the Holy See.
The 67-year-old cardinal, who as secretary of state is the Vatican’s number two after the pope, is currently in isolation, exhibiting only “mild symptoms,” says Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni.
Venezuelan archbishop, Edgar Pena Parra, the Vatican’s deputy secretary of state, also tested positive, but he was asymptomatic, Bruni says.
Both men had been vaccinated.
Pope Francis, 85 and himself vaccinated, frequently meets with Cardinal Parolin, who is considered the pontiff’s righthand man.
Francis has been an avid proponent of vaccination yet regularly appears without a mask during public audiences and does not hesitate to shake hands with the faithful and pose for photographs.
The Israel Defense Forces confirms that two soldiers from the elite Duvdevan Unit were injured after “military ordnance” exploded during an exercise at their training range in the central West Bank.
The military says it is investigating the blast.
The two soldiers have been taken to a Jerusalem hospital for treatment, the IDF says. The soldiers were wounded moderately and lightly in the incident.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett condemns the Houthi attack on Abu Dhabi yesterday, in a letter he sent to Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.
“I strongly condemn the terrorist attacks in Abu Dhabi carried out by the Iranian-backed Houthis and send condolences to the families of the innocent victims,” Bennett says. “Israel stands with the UAE. I stand with Mohammed bin Zayed. The world should stand against terror.”
In the letter, Bennett offers Israel’s “security and intelligence support” to protect against future attacks, and said he had “ordered the Israeli security establishment to provide their counterparts in the UAE with any assistance.”
I strongly condemn the terrorist attacks in Abu Dhabi carried out by the Iranian-backed Houthis and send condolences to the families of the innocent victims.
Israel stands with the UAE.
I stand with Mohammed bin Zayed.
The world should stand against terror. pic.twitter.com/r208ZQe5Js
— Naftali Bennett בנט (@naftalibennett) January 18, 2022
A drone attack claimed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels targeting a key oil facility in Abu Dhabi killed three people yesterday and sparked a fire at Abu Dhabi’s international airport.
Israel Police chief Kobi Shabtai admits to the usage of NSO Group spyware against Israeli citizens, but promises that everything was done with the appropriate warrants and oversight. He denies using it against anti-Netanyahu activists.
A report in Calcalist this morning claims that police have for years been making widespread use of spyware made by the controversial NSO Group against Israeli civilians, including people not suspected of crimes, exploiting a legal loophole and keeping the surveillance under tight secrecy without oversight by a court or a judge.
In Shabtai’s response to the report, the police chief does not deny that it uses the company’s Pegasus spyware, but says that “everything is done with the required legal approvals.”
He denies, however, claims in the report that the spyware was used against anti-government protesters or other activists. “These kinds of tools were not used against Black Flag [anti-Netanyahu] demonstrators, the phones of heads of municipalities or to track anti-pride parade activists.”
He says the use of such tools is “one of the most controlled and supervised areas by all legal entities both inside and outside the police.”
British media report today that an armed man who took four people hostage during a 10-hour standoff at a Texas synagogue on Saturday was previously investigated in the UK for being a potential terror threat.
UK media outlets, including the Guardian, report that Malik Faisal Akram had been under investigation by the domestic security service, MI5, as a possible “terrorist threat” in 2020. The investigation was closed after authorities concluded Akram posed no threat, the reports say.
Britain’s Home Office did not immediately comment on the reports.
Akram, 44, had spent time in Texas homeless shelters in the two weeks leading up to the attack, and was dropped off at one by someone he appeared to know. The hostage taker was brought to the shelter in downtown Dallas on Jan. 2 by a man who hugged him and had conversations with him, says Wayne Walker, CEO and pastor of OurCalling, which provides services to homeless people.
“He was dropped off by somebody that looked like he had a relationship with him,” says Walker, who says he turned photos and video over to the FBI.
Akram was killed after the remaining three hostages ran out of the building on Saturday evening. Authorities have declined to say who shot Akram, saying it was still under investigation.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will fly to Ukraine today in a show of support amid fears of a Russian invasion, the State Department says.
Blinken, who will meet tomorrow in Kyiv with President Volodymyr Zelensky, will “reinforce the United States’s commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” State Department spokesman Ned Price says.
Blinken will also head on Thursday to Berlin for four-way talks with Britain, France and Germany on the Ukraine crisis.
The four transatlantic powers will discuss “joint efforts to deter further Russian aggression against Ukraine, including allies’ and partners’ readiness to impose massive consequences and severe economic costs on Russia,” Price says in a statement.
The Health Ministry reports that 498 people with COVID are hospitalized in serious condition, up from 446 on Sunday evening.
The Health Ministry has not updated its COVID data dashboard in two days, blaming technical problems. In partial data just released, the ministry says that out of the 498 serious cases, 135 are in critical condition, 100 are on ventilators and 13 are hooked up to an ECMO machine.
A further 907 patients with COVID are hospitalized in fair or moderate condition. And 8,129 medical staff are currently out of work due to infection or exposure.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warns Russia against invading Ukraine, calling the former Soviet republic a “powerful” country with international friends.
“You cannot handle these things by saying ‘I will invade something, I will take it,'” Turkish media quotes Erdogan as saying. “I don’t see Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a realistic approach because it is not an ordinary country. Ukraine is a powerful country.”
More than a week of negotiations between Russia and the West have done little to ease worries raised by the massing of tens of thousands of Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders.
Ukraine, the United States and the European Union have all raised deep concerns over the Russian troop buildup, despite repeated denials from Moscow that an invasion is planned.
Facing a nationwide surge in coronavirus cases fueled by the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, Abu Dhabi is requiring people entering the city to show proof of booster shots.
The government’s health app said earlier this week that people entering the capital of the United Arab Emirates must show a “green pass,” confirming their vaccination status. The app says that visitors are no longer considered fully vaccinated unless they have received a booster at least six months after their second dose.
Those wishing to enter Abu Dhabi also must have have tested negative for the virus within the last two weeks to maintain their “green” status.
The emirate has taken a stricter approach to the virus than neighboring Dubai, the freewheeling tourism-dependent hub. Abu Dhabi requires that residents show their green pass before entering public places or government buildings.
The UAE boasts among the world’s highest vaccination rates per capita. The country has fully vaccinated more than 90% of its population, health authorities have said. Although infections had plummeted in December, cases recently have skyrocketed to heights unseen in months.
Between 25 million and 30 million free home antigen COVID tests will be handed out to Israeli citizens starting next week, say Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz.
The distribution of tests will be aimed at the most vulnerable and needy, including schoolchildren, residents of old age homes, families who receive welfare assistance and students in higher education.
In the first wave of distribution, each student in the education system will receive a set of six home tests, with another round of delivery possible.
“The government is looking for any way to help Israeli citizens get through the Omicron wave,” Bennett says. “We have decided to provide free tests to Israeli citizens, students and the general population… in order to keep the economy as functional as possible and to overcome, together, the peak of the wave.”
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